Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Midsummer's Evening

Yesterday, midsummer, the Solstice, a lovely warm day, though threatening at times, it warmed up toward evening. Himself and I had dinner on the veranda, which practically shimmered in the unusual heat. We ate late, as usual, not sitting down before 8 or possibly 8:30. Afterward, enchanted by the gold light still striking the tall slender trunks of the trees in the wood, beguiled by the bright patches on the grass, the thin blue of the sky, I suggested we take a walk. We set off sometime after 9. I had my camera in my back pocket, but by the time we reached the fishing pond, the shadows were so long that the path was in twilight. Still the light off the pond, the pumpkin-coloured house across the way mirrored neatly in its brown-green surface, was beautiful.

We walked, as usual, to the Spitz, where the River Saalach pours into the Salzach, right at the border with Germany. There we stopped to watch the last fading pink in the pale sky over the confluence. A couple of young women had a small fire going in the sand, preparing, I would say, for a Solstice celebration. The thin blue smoke drifted over the rivers’ surface, mist I first thought, but no, smoke. It was too warm for mist, I suppose.

Across the Salzach, on the far side of the river, a slightly larger party was going, with two or three small fires and a band of smaller ones surrounding the group, candles or lantern, I would say.

‘Is that person naked,’ Himself asked.

We squinted through the dimming light. There were bodies as well as flames reflected in the river’s surface, but

‘No,’ he said. ‘I guess not.’

It wouldn’t have surprised us though, not really. It seemed a New Agey kind of group, gathering, no doubt, to mark the Solstice. Nakedness would not be out of line. No bother.

We walked along, companionable in a new-found way, sometimes holding hands, sometimes just touching. Just before we got to the bend in the path, the bend that’s just where a wooden bridge crosses a stream, we met another couple coming our way, younger, white patches on his pants just reflecting the last remnants of light.

‘Grüß Gott,’ they said.

‘Grüß Gott,’ we replied.

There was companionableness in their greeting: often in these walks others don’t acknowledge those they pass. But it was a sacred time, and others who were out in it were more than passers-by; they were fellow partakers of the magic.

The path, now overhung by dense foliage on both sides, became a tunnel. We rounded the bend, just by the bridge, and

‘Look!’ Said Himself. ‘A firefly!’

So there was. And another, and more, and more and more.

We stopped, enchanted. Tiny green-white stars, untethered from the heavens, flitted or hovered in among the bushes. We moved on a few paces and stopped again. Standing on the wooden bridge, staring into the water below, we could still see them, as one or two drifted out beyond the leafy banks.

‘I’ve only seen one firefly before, once, last summer,’ I said.

Himself said he’d only seen them once before, in Germany, years ago, before we met, walking with two young women in the early hours of a morning. ‘And up to no good,’ he added.

‘Are there fireflies in Ireland?’ I wondered.


We crossed the bridge and once more were walking parallel to the Salzach, trees along one side, water reflecting occasional lights from the opposite bank on the other. A small white waterfowl drifted north along the tide. The onion-domed steeple of the Bergheim church glowed pale gold. On its hill far above, Maria Plain was illuminated too.

On our right, in the low brushes, more fireflies glowed. All along the way, they danced or, occasionally, hovered in pairs, a few inches apart. We turned right onto the path leading through the park still watching their pale gleam.

‘It makes you understand why people believed in Sprites,’ said Himself.

It does. It was like scores and then more scores and more scores of tiny fairy lights, held by the Unseen, processing in the dark. One could imagine an invisible but parallel world, with the Little People going about their business, moving through the night.

Then – a crash in the bushes and something larger ran parallel and dashed across the path. Barely discernible but not invisible, another dark shape followed. Young deer, panicked no doubt by our voices, rushed to safety.

Then, passing the park maintenance building, we were suddenly under the harsh glare of man-made light.

‘Every building needs a fat florescent bulb,’ said Himself, grumbling.

Soon though, we once more entered the unlit dirt track running round the fishing pond. The fireflies still flitted in the dark leaves that bordered our walk. Down around the bottom of the track we went, skirting the bike and long pole of a fisherman, the lone holdout in the dark. We climbed the brief overgrown path between the wood and the last house on the street, still watching fireflies.

‘Look,’ he said, stopping suddenly. ‘Look at how green they are. Like emeralds. Greener than emeralds!’

I looked. In fact, they didn’t look as green as emeralds to me. They looked pale green, probably reflecting the light of the leaves.

But I said nothing as we turned into our driveway and climbed the stairs to the flat.

Magic is magic, after all.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

In Which I Am Nearly Made A Liar

Last night, Himself and I sat on the veranda after dinner, watching the restless sky, which seethed with pewter-grey clouds.

‘Look,’ he said. ‘Swallows!’

‘Sure,’ said I. ‘Make a liar of me.’

And I told him about the day’s post, written just hours before, in which I had said no swallows swoop and soar over our garden.

But I looked up and, sure enough, overhead flew a dozen, maybe a score, of swallows. They passed high above, darted into the silver mist, and circled briefly over the towering trees at the wood’s edge, and disappeared. Perhaps the storm and heavy rain had driven them from the river. Who knows?

Far from making a liar of me, their passage underscored my point.

For though we are less than a kilometre from the river, they didn’t linger here. The swallows dance no dance for us; we are just part of the patchwork of green, brown, grey and dun, the maze of concrete, asphalt, stucco and brick, over which they pass. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Summer Skies

While it would be gross fabrication to say I miss the U.S., it would be mere exaggeration to say I am homesick for Ireland. We followed the Queen’s recent visit with uncanny fascination, surprised at the waves of emotion that overcame us at the reconciliation and mutual respect that arose from the ceremonies. I regretted that I could not stand near the motorway running between Cashel and Cork to see her motorcade pass – until I realised they made the journey by helicopter. Still, in my mind’s eye, I stood at our sitting room window in Tipperary and saw – across the pastures of Tincurry – her Range Rover glide through the landscape, past the gaze of Galtymore.

Likewise, we would have liked to have been there to see the crowds welcoming Obama, though, as it happened, we were in Italy during his visit. As well, when Tipperary recently beat Cork, its long-standing nemesis, in the first test of the summer-long hurling national championship, we wished we could have been watching the match from the comfort of the Garryroan sitting room.

Those are public occasions, of course. The twinges of nostalgia, those passing moments of longing, more often come in the odd, private moment. Weeding the garden in the stillness of an overcast afternoon, the breeze soft and pregnant with rain, the clear trill of blackbirds the loudest sound I hear, I am put in mind the long, overgrown garden at the back of my mother-in-law’s house. Looking up, I notice the swell of currents and ripening raspberries on the bush, and I wish, once more, that she could have seen our garden here.

I recall also the low rolling hills of Ireland, green fields cross hatched by deeper green hedgerows and grey clouds swelling on the horizon. Perhaps the memory is triggered by a photo; perhaps it comes suddenly to my imagination. The Austrian landscape is beautiful, its wide open meadows spreading against the soaring Alps breathtaking. The ancient onion-domed steeples and charming villages, dignified in these vast spaces, still astonish me. But my response to the Irish landscape, whether imagined or seen, is instinctual, as if primordial. It’s the quickening recognition that draws one toward a long-missed loved one.

It’s not just the landscape I miss, of course. I think of languorous warm Sunday afternoons, when, dinner dishes done, we wander aimlessly. Waiting, perhaps, for the Sunday match to begin, we sit in the glassed-in porch of my mother-in-law’s house, where, overheated by the welcome sun, acrid dust rising from the elderly brown cushions competes with the sharp scent of geraniums. Or we drift to the long tunnel of the polythene house, where the interior temperature rises a good 10 degrees higher than the cool afternoon. Flying insects ping against its taut surface; the air is rank with humus and sweet with ripe peaches and apricots. Rusted tools, rough twine, unspooled in irregular loops, faded boxes and broken crockery litter the tottering timber table. A drumming flutter beats against the plastic in the corner as a thrush, frantic, finds her way out the opening at the far end.

Later, in the long evening, we sit outside, if we’re lucky, to watch the colour drain from the light over the tips of the towering hedges. We try to distinguish the music of the thrush from the melody of the blackbird. Overhead, swallows and swifts dance their soaring song, filling the sky with swooping arabesques, their high chattering cries hanging in the air. They fill me with contentment.

We see no swallows from our veranda in Salzburg. I spotted, last summer, a few over the Salzach as I cycled along it in the evening. They flitted over the river, dancing from current to current just above the water, their cries muffled by the roar of the water. But they do not dance over our garden.

So it was with exhilaration I listened to the high shrill twittering of a sky full of swallows above the basilica in Padua. They soared too over the campos and canals of Venice, filling the heaven with their shrieks, weaving an elegant ballet against the fading blue light, blue reflected and intensified by the mirror-like waters below. In the heat of an Italian evening, I saw the swallows and thought of Ireland and home.

View of the Galtee Mountains from Garryroan, South Tipperary, Ireland
Photo by Lorraine Seal

Monday, June 6, 2011

Giotto in Padua

In February, we made a trip to Rome in celebration of our 25th anniversary. To celebrate my  60th birthday, I requested a trip to Venice, a city I never imagined I’d have a chance to visit and of which I had few mental images.

Venice has the advantage of being within driving distance of Salzburg, something over five hours. Rather than make the whole journey in a day, we booked four nights in Venice, and then, working backwards, I booked a night in Sirmione, one of dozens of towns and villages that dot the shores of Lago di Garda, the large Alpine lake in the north of Italy, and another night in Padua, which lies less than a hour west of Venice. I had left one night open, the last night of the week and, at the urging of our sister-in-law, Moyra, we decided to spend it in Verona on our return journey.

Venice, Padua and Verona are cities associated in my mind with the plays of Shakespeare, with literature I haven’t necessarily read, and with the ghosts of art history lectures decades ago. It was then I fell in love with medieval and early Renaissance Western art with little expectation I would ever see the masterpieces in situ.

So it was with taut nerves and hard-to-contain excitement that I waited with about twenty others to be admitted to the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padua to see the cycle of frescoes painted by Giotto for the ruling family of Padua in their private chapel. Depicting scenes from the life of Mary, mother of Jesus, from the life of Anne, her mother, and from the life of Christ, the cycle was completed in 1305. It is considered to be one of the masterpieces of Western art. 

An early master, Giotto bridges the divide between the stiffer, hierarchical figures painted against gold ground that mark medieval work and the opening up of perspective with naturalistic settings and more lifelike figures that heralded the coming of the Renaissance. Put plainly, he was one of the artists who opened our eyes so we could see the world differently.

The high, round vault of the chapel in Padua is painted deep blue with a regular pattern of gold stars. Across the ceiling and down the walls patterned bands of colour divide the space into panels, each of which frames a different scene from Mary’s life, so the whole is viewed like a picture book. They are lovely; the colours, both rich and soft, are varied. Giotto shows technical skill, too. The modelling of the drapery carefully rendered to indicate the solidity of the flesh, bone and muscle beneath. Backgrounds are simple but there is early use of perspective, so the depth of a scene in shown. Decorative borders under some of the panels are painted with such skill that they appear as if carved from wall.

But what draws one to the paintings is the humanness of the figures. Faces are beautiful and expressive. Tears stream down the mothers’ faces in the scene depicting the massacre of the innocents. The faces of Mary, her companions and John the Baptist are anguished as they cradle the body of the dead Christ, disposed from the cross. Over their heads, tiny angels mourn, arms spread in agony or clutched to their faces. In these faces, the artist captures vulnerability, volatility, softness and beauty.
Giotto, The Lamentation, Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Still, Giotto’s naturalism is not the realism of the later Renaissance and Baroque. The figures are charming and lifelike in the way of beautifully drawn picture book. They lack the full physicality and complete individualisation of painting that would follow in later centuries. However, like a child, I wanted to study every small detail, to hold them in my mind, to somehow own them though my first-hand experience of them. I love the translucence of the water that laps around Jesus’ legs as he stands in the Sea of Galilee while John baptises him. I love the delicately overlapping feathers in the angels’ wings and the softness of the women’s faces. Since I first was introduced to these works, in slides and four-colour pictures over thirty years ago, I have wanted to be in their presence.

Giotto, The Kiss of Judas, Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Frescoes are created by mixing pigment in plaster that is painted onto the surface of a wall, so they are chemically bound to it. This gives them durability, but they can be damaged by exposure to the elements, in particular salt. The frescos of Giotto in Padua are still in place more than seven hundred years – nearly three-quarters of a millennium – after they were created. Yet they have suffered some damage; to protect them from the effects of humidity caused by respiration, only twenty-five people at one time are admitted, and then for only fifteen minutes. All too soon for me, our fifteen minutes were up, and we were escorted out, passing on our way the next group of twenty-five waiting to be ushered in.

So Himself and I came out of the dim chapel into the heat and glare of a May afternoon in Padua. Before us stretched the week in Venice, where we would see many more landmark paintings and many more masterpieces of art. Seeing the Giotto frescoes was but one dream fulfilled. I can’t hold them in memory as acutely as I would like: to write this, I referred to images online, pale imitations of the originals that can only hint at their power.

I am lucky to have had the chance to worship at their shrine, inconceivably so. Little by little, I am learning to see the world differently.